There was a stretch, not so long ago, when Brazilian fighters appeared on their way to ruling the UFC championship roost.
Junior dos Santos held the heavyweight belt. Lyoto Machida and Mauricio Rua did their thing at light heavyweight. Anderson Silva, of course, dominated the middleweights. Jose Aldo, the kid of the bunch, racked up defenses at 145, where he remains the only Brazilian fighter to hold a UFC belt. And, for just more than a year, Renan Barao has stood as the interim bantamweight titleholder in place of injured Dominick Cruz.
Like dominoes, however, some have fallen.
Jon Jones stepped up to claim the light heavyweight crown, vanquishing Rua in March 2011. Cain Velasquez reclaimed the heavyweight belt against dos Santos at the end of last year. And Chris Weidman made history a month ago when he dispatched Silva, the longest reigning champ in UFC history.
Meanwhile, Aldo and Barao, teammates at the Brazilian camp Nova Uniao, are the last men standing.
A couple of months from turning 27, Aldo isn't the youngest UFC champion. That distinction belongs to Jones. But the Brazilian has been ranked atop his division much longer, claiming the No. 1 spot in 2009 by beating Mike Brown in the WEC. Taking just his UFC experience into account, Aldo's run at 145 is impressive enough to earn him an assortment of accolades.
If the dynamic Brazilian, third on ESPN.com's current pound-for-pound list, does what most expect he’ll do and chops down Chan Sung Jung on Saturday in Rio, his time atop the UFC featherweight division will eclipse the rarefied air of 1,000 days.
Three men in UFC history have held on to their belts longer. Silva, the Brazilian giant, saw his run end at 2,458 days. Canadian great Georges St-Pierre has been the man at welterweight for 1,928 straight days. And Tito Ortiz made his name in the light heavyweight division over a 1,260-day stretch from 2000 to 2003.
When Silva went down to Weidman, not only did that make Aldo (22-1) the lone Brazilian currently wearing an undisputed title in the organization (including him, seven Brazilians have done this) but it positioned "Junior" second behind St-Pierre as far as ongoing championship success inside the Octagon.
Sure enough, true to his ability, Aldo has secured his spot among the most successful fighters ever to step foot in that space.
Should Silva lose a second time to Weidman at the end of the year, and dos Santos fall short in his attempt to reclaim the title versus Velasquez during their trilogy fight in October, that would make Aldo’s value to the UFC far more pronounced. As such, Aldo might feel a type of pressure he has not had to deal with yet -- not just in terms of representing himself but as an emissary for the UFC, which has been and will continue to be incredibly active in his South American home nation.
"The one thing we know is that there is an appetite in Brazil for UFC live events," said Marshall Zelaznik, UFC's managing director of international business, during a pre-event conference call. "Between our partners with Globo and Globosat and Combate channel, there's also huge demand for television media to cover the events. So we're trying to satisfy all the demands there. And we’re committed for this year and for the years to follow, to bring five-plus events into the region.”
As that busy calendar unfolds, Brazilian media and fans will surely look to Aldo, not Silva, as the standard-bearer for their flag inside the UFC. This might have been inevitable based on Aldo’s ability and the reality of Silva’s age, but now the day has arrived when Aldo has to be ready to handle it all.
A decisive win in Rio a month after Silva fell from his perch could easily elevate Aldo to a place he’s never been. He’s a cool customer in the cage, and no one should expect that to change. However, new demands on his time, especially given that we’re talking about a guy who doesn’t covet the limelight, might prove burdensome.
The full measure of what success can bring is at Aldo’s door. Beating Jung, traversing the 1,000-day mark and grabbing the mantle as Brazil’s best are important landmarks in a career that has delivered highlight after highlight, destruction after destruction.